The Northman is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
First, Robert Eggers mystified us with The Witch, then he made us fall in love with maniacal lighthouse keepers in The Lighthouse, and now, he has come to unfurl the epic Viking tapestry of The Northman. This bloody tale is told by some of Eggers’ typical collaborators, Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, and Kate Dickie – but there are a whole host of newcomers to the Eggers mythology, from Alexander Skarsgard to Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman. Simply put, he’s hot stuff to work with, and here his idiosyncratic directorial style and deep-dive into folklore and mythology appeal to the more experimental performances often found in the theatre.
The story of The Northman may seem remarkably familiar to some, even down to Skarsgard’s name ‘Amleth;’ Shakespeare’s inspiration for Hamlet. It’s a much simpler tale woven by Eggers compared to his previous work – revenge lies at its beating heart, with Amleth on a dogmatic quest to fulfil his ultimate fate of vengeance. Unfortunately, there’s not nearly as much time for the nobleman (Hawke) as some may like, but the brief time he graces the screen proves that he’s more than equipped as a player for future epic storytellers.
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It’s clear that despite partnering with a bigger studio, Eggers’ visual style is uncompromised – constantly-centred framing and mechanical camera movements harken back to his silent-film experimentation on The Lighthouse. This fills The Northman with a timelessness, as though a filmic relic dredged up for the modern-day. Ireland fills in for Viking-era Iceland nicely, with unforgiving breadths of mountains and isolating storms providing The Northman with a constant sense of emptiness.
It would be unsurprising to see the director work with Claes Bang again, undoubtedly one of the strongest players as Fjolnir, Amleth’s murderous uncle. Bang has one of those demeanours which innately present him as a man out-of-time, almost reflecting Bram Stoker’s vampiric count. He’s able to complicate this inherent aura of malice and discontent through his disarming cadence and gentle intimacy with the few he interacts with, crafting a picture of a man who doesn’t align perfectly with Amleth’s perception of him, troubling the legitimacy of his revenge quest.
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Likewise, Nicole Kidman’s Queen Gudrún strikes a monstrously fierce and undeniably awe-inspiring impression, using her words like a warrior uses their sword in one of The Northman’s tensest battles. Here Eggers constantly seeks to complicate and trouble our perceptions of who we follow and our allegiances in those we believe in or against.
However, something seems to be missing within The Northman. Here the moving parts are oiled to perfection, yet the machine itself struggles to work as a whole. Eggers has spoken out about studio interference in the editing process and the arduous experience of test screenings and studio oversight, and perhaps that is where the central problem lies. Eggers’ voice doesn’t feel as present as it does in The Witch and The Lighthouse – the marketing of The Northman does a mighty job in presenting the epic revenge tragedy as something much weirder than it is. However, while some peculiar moments reach into that Gothic toybox Eggers enjoys, it feels as though The Northman has been held back.
Oscar Novak stars as Young Amleth in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic THE NORTHMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC
Where The Witch and The Lighthouse felt like unbridled creativity, The Northman feels like a compromise between an idiosyncratic director and a big studio concerned about some of his more off-kilter decisions. Given the incredible weirdness and downright disturbing material found in Norse mythology, The Northman feels somewhat sanitised for a director like Robert Eggers.
The Northman is undoubtedly another good film from Eggers, but it doesn’t achieve the greatness of The Lighthouse and The Witch – it just feels as though something is holding him back, and given his comments, maybe there is some truth to that feeling. Either way, this is an epic Viking revenge tragedy – but that’s all it is, and that’s a little disappointing.
The Northman is undoubtedly another good film from Eggers, but it doesn’t achieve the greatness of The Lighthouse and The Witch.